Trakai Island Castle is possibly the most magnificent surviving fortress in the Baltic states of Northeastern Europe. Also known as Little Marienburg because of its resemblance to Malbork Castle in Poland, it almost completely encompasses a large, rocky island in the middle of Lake Galve and is one of the most stunning waterfront castles anywhere. It is the definitive monument of Lithuania and one of the most popular tourism destinations in the Baltics.
Trakai Island Castle dates back to the 14th century, when it was constructed by the rulers of Lithuania as a part of a defensive system designed to protect Vilmius from the encroachments of the Teutonic Knights. This system of fortifications also included the older Trakai Peninsula Castle, which is now largely a ruin.
Trakai was assaulted by the Teutonic Knights in the 1370s, at which time both of the castles saw major combat. Trakai Island Castle was badly damaged and fell to siege, after which it was held by the knights for a brief time. The castle was later restored to the Lithuanians, though their hold on the Trakai region was tenuous until the Teutonic Knights were decisively defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410.
In the aftermath of these wars, Trakai Island Castle was transformed into a part-time royal residence. The Trakai region was later caught up in the Russo-Polish War in the mid-17th century. This conflict left the Trakai Peninsula Castle in ruins, and the Island Castle in bad, though not terminal, condition.
After this, Trakai Island Castle was largely abandoned until the 19th century. Restoration has taken place periodically, beginning with the Russian Czars in 1905. Interestingly, additional restoration efforts were undertaken by the Germans during World War I, the Communists in the 1930s and the Nazis in the early 1940s. The castle’s full restoration as it stands today was not completed until after Lithuania gained its independence in the 1990s. It has since become the Lithuania’s preeminent national symbol and its most famous tourist site.
Trakai Island Castle has one of the most serene settings of any castle anywhere. Built of quarried stone for the first few stories and red brick for the upper levels, Trakai is framed by lush green woods and a crystal clear lake which can be dotted with hundreds of white sailboats when the weather is accommodating. The castle can only be approached on foot by a long wooden causeway which leads straight the red-brick gatehouse. The high wall is defended by three massive round towers at the corners.
The castle interior is much larger than it appears from the outside. Beyond the gate is a spacious courtyard, filled with the buildings and facilities to maintain the royal court. The courtyard is dominated by the large ducal palace, the second largest royal residence in Lithuania. The palace is now home to a museum with exhibits and artifacts from the castle’s history.
Trakai Island Castle is located in in the resort town of Trakai, Lithuania, approximately twenty miles west of Vilnius. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.trakaimuziejus.lt (official website).
The Baltic States are dotted with excellent and well-preserved castles, relics of the late medieval wars between the Danes, Poles and Teutonic Knights. Kaunas Castle is probably the next most popular in Lithuania after Trakai Island. Riga Castle is one of the largest fortresses in the Baltics and is now the seat of the Latvian government. Estonia boasts several of the best of all, including Hermann Castle, Kuressaare Castle and Toompea Castle.